Tonight President Obama takes the stage for his annual address on the State of the Union. The First Lady and her guests will smile and wave, Democrats will stand and applaud, Republicans will scramble to ready their rebuttals, and you and I will check out #SOTU tweets while having a beer.
As political theater, it's not bad. But do you know what I'd rather watch? A series of product demos.
President Obama plans to "lay out a set of real, concrete, practical proposals to grow the economy, strengthen the middle class, and empower all who hope to join it," senior White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer wrote in an email to supporters over the weekend.
But it's hard for "proposals" to be real and concrete in ways that lead to well-designed products and experiences. If I heard a line like that from a team at a design thinking workshop, or a Startup Weekend, I'd recommend making a prototype and putting it in front of customers before doing anything else.
The last presidential election woke Washington up to the importance of big data and back-end technology. But the government's front-end capabilities, and user experience design in particular, continue to be an afterthought.
Even the media seems to letting Obama and his administration off the hook for its user experience. Nearly everything went wrong in the botched execution of the Affordable Care Act website, but the technology community focused on taking the government to task for its outdated software processes and overly complex architecture. This critique was typical of the face-palm response:
Without minimizing these issues, I'd put forward that the problems with the Affordable Care Act’s signature platform go far beyond process and structure. When I tried to purchase a new plan, through the portal operated by New York State, the user experience was bad enough that I couldn't figure out whether I had successfully completed my checkout. I hoped a confirmation email would clear up my confusion, but one never arrived. A couple of weeks later an insurance card arrived in the mail, with no context or explanation.
The crux of the problem is that Washington defines written legislation as policy’s end game, rather than product.
Think of when we celebrate policy changes —it’s typically at the bill signing, as the cameras flash and the historic pens are handed out. From a product manager’s perspective, that’s the equivalent of throwing yourself a launch party after writing the technical requirements.
The uncomfortable truth facing Washington is that your user experience is the essence of your policy. The man-hours behind the thousands of pages stipulating the Affordable Care Act’s rules and regulations could all be for naught if healthcare.gov fails to translate that legislative complexity into specific tasks that individual users can easily accomplish. That is the heuristic for a life-improving policy, and that's how people will judge it.
For an example of how policy as product can work effectively, take a look at New York City. One of the city’s signature "products," 311, is how I experience the city’s rules and regulations related to tenant rights, alternate side parking, and noise complaints. Earlier this month I called to report my landlord, after frozen pipes left my apartment without water for days. In response, the city investigated the issue on my behalf, and gave me a ticket number so that I could check the status of my complaint online.
I chose to call, but I could have sent a text message, completed a form online, or used the 311 app. I’ve never read the legislation governing the city's landlord-tenant policies, and I have no need to—because the product works. At the end of the day, I’d rather have imperfect policies made transparent by good UX than perfect policies muffled and distorted by poor UX. The former makes it easier for me to speak up and take action.
Last year approval ratings for Congress hit a new low —12%, the worst rating in 40 years. Clearly, it’s time for Washington to embrace change in a big way. My recommendation: Opt for product designers over lawyers, and mockups over memos. If you can solve for product, and deliver simple, intuitive solutions to constituents, support for policy and brand should follow.